No historian's description can rival the words of the people who actually lived that history. More and more diaries, journals, and letters from every time period are being put on-line in websites and blogs, and for any history nerd (not just us), they're completely fascinating and absolutely addictive.
Martha Ballard (1735-1812) was a midwife who lived in Hallowell, Maine. Though she did not begin keeping her diary until she was fifty, the book remains one of the very few such journals kept by a colonial woman, and recounts not only her work as a rural midwife (she delivered over 800 babies), but also her trials and joys as a mother and wife in a turbulent time in American history. Her story was made famous by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale. (The photo, top left, is from the PBS adaptation.) You can read Martha's entire diary on line, in either her handwriting, or transcribed.
The letters home of Lt. David Thomas (1922-1945), left middle, an American airman serving in World War II, offer a different kind of experience. Posted on-line by his grand-nephew, Neal Thomas Hurst, in the form of a blog, these very readable letters bring back the day-to-day experiences of a young man during the war. Who can resist a letter that begins "Dear Mother, I didn't die"? Knowing that the lieutenant was later killed in action during a bombing mission over Germany in 1945 makes the letters all the more poignant.
The Life & Loves of a Victorian Clerk is exactly that: the daily journal of Nathaniel Bryceson (1825-1911), a nineteen-year-old wharf clerk in Pimilico. Documenting the year 1846, Nathaniel's journal is being put on-line day by day by the City of Westminster Archives, and includes wonderful 19th c. illustrations (like the one left) from their collections. So far Nathaniel has written of his job, his long walks around London on his days off, his neighbors, his girlfriend Anne Fox, and everything else that entertains a young man in Victorian London, from a public execution to a carriage accident -- and this is only the first month.
My personal favorite is the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), left. Pepys was a naval administrator and member of Parliament. His daily diary from 1660-1670 chronicles both his personal life (I've already quoted here about his choice of books) and ambitions, and momentous historical events in London like the Plague and the Great Fire. This site posts an entry each day, much like a serial novel, and the comments added by readers greatly enhance the site.
These suggestions are only a beginning. How about the 17th c. extracts of the Royal Society's Journal Books? Or Jane Austen's History of England in her own hand, or William Blake's Notebook, or Lewis Carroll's original manuscript for Alice? They're all here, thanks to the British Library.
Perhaps you have a favorite you've discovered, too. If so, please share the link -- whatever the topic, we're interested!